PITTSBURGH (AP)—He hated the eight months of exhausting rehabilitation, and the team that made him go through it. Carson Palmer didn’t play the way he wanted against the team he dislikes the most, but the result couldn’t have been more satisfying.
Alternating between brilliant and awful, the Cincinnati quarterback threw two touchdown passes to T.J. Houshmandzadeh less than a minute apart midway through the fourth quarter following Pittsburgh Steelers turnovers and the unbeaten Bengals rallied for a 28-20 victory Sunday over the Super Bowl champions.
“We’re a better team than we were last year and we expected to come in here and win this game, but it took everything we had,” running back Rudi Johnson said.
Especially from Palmer, whose focus has been on the Steelers almost since the moment Kimo von Oelhoffen tore apart his knee by rolling atop it early in Pittsburgh’s playoff victory in January. Palmer had three fumbles, two interceptions and was sacked six times, yet overcame them with four touchdown passes while going 18-of-26 for 193 yards.
“I didn’t take anything personal into this game,” said Palmer, who during the offseason said how much he hated the Steelers. “I didn’t come in here thinking, `It’s payback time, let’s get these guys.’ I came in here thinking it’s a divisional game and let’s get a win.”
Chris Henry, the wide receiver hurt on the same play as Palmer, wasn’t as diplomatic.
“We planned on coming back this year and beating Pittsburgh two times,” said Henry, who caught Palmer’s other two TD passes among his five receptions.
For the Bengals (3-0), it’s one down and one to go. The Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens (3-0) already own two-game leads in the AFC North over the Steelers (1-2), who couldn’t withstand a second mediocre game in seven days by their own rehabilitating quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger, recovering from an offseason motorcycle accident and appendicitis attack, was an ineffective 18-of-39 for 209 yards and three interceptions. Kevin Kaesviharn made the third and final pickoff, on a third-and-10 from the Bengals’ 16 with Pittsburgh trying to drive for the tying score in the closing seconds.
With the Bengals scoring 21 points off Steelers turnovers, Palmer twice hit Henry for touchdowns for a 14-7 halftime lead. Then, after the Steelers seemed in control even while leading only 17-14 in the fourth, Palmer took advantage of fumbles by punt returner Ricardo Colclough and running back Verron Haynes to hit Houshmandzadeh on TD throws of 9 and 30 yards only 54 seconds apart.
Houshmandzadeh had missed two games with a heel injury but, with the Steelers limiting star Chad Johnson to one catch for 11 yards, took advantage of man coverage to make nine catches for 94 yards.
Colclough’s fumble at the Steelers 9, recovered by Tony Stewart, was the turning point. An inexperienced returner, Colclough tried to catch a tumbling punt that was aided by a strong wind with his hands over his head but never controlled it, and the Bengals scored on the next play.
“You can put that on me, too,” Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of using an inexperienced punt returner in a key situation.
Besides the turnovers, Cowher was especially unhappy the Steelers had penalties for excessive celebration and taunting.
“That will not happen again. That’s on me,” he said.
The Steelers, coming off a 9-0 loss Monday to Jacksonville, couldn’t have gotten off to a much better start. They drove 80 yards for the first of Willie Parker’s two short touchdown runs, a 3-yarder, less than six minutes into the game. Parker ran for 133 yards.
Palmer then had what might be the worst three-play sequence of his career— fumbling on consecutive plays, with the Bengals recovering each time before his pass was intercepted by Deshea Townsend at the Steelers’ 46.
“It shows how good your team is when your quarterback doesn’t play well and you get a win,” Palmer said.
The Steelers, with a chance to quickly make it 14-0, drove to the Bengals’ 6 before Madieu Williams picked off Roethlisberger’s pass into the end zone—the first regular-season interception Roethlisberger has thrown inside an opponent’s 20.
“I put a lot of pressure in myself to produce,” Roethlisberger said. “There were a lot of ebbs and flows, but I think today was a big step for me.”
Cincinnati has started 3-0 the last two seasons, a franchise first. … Johnson doesn’t have a touchdown catch in his last four games against Pittsburgh. … Roethlisberger is 8-2 against the AFC North, with the only two losses to Cincinnati. … The Steelers had won 27 of 33 before losing two in a row. … The road team has won six of the last seven in the series and each of the last four.